THE name of Stephen signifies a crown, and a glorious crown in heaven was surely won by him who was chosen of God to lay down his life for Christ's love, first of all the many martyrs.
St. Stephen was one of six other Jewish men who had been elected to the office of deacon by reason of their well-known piety and wisdom. This office was constituted in the early Church for the purpose of having proper care taken of the poor, and Stephen with his companions were admitted to it by the laying on of hands, and we bear that he was "full of faith and power, and did great wonders and miracles among the people."
But certain men began to feel great enmity against the holy deacon, and resolving to do him harm, they bribed false witnesses to declare that he had been heard publicly to utter blasphemy against Moses, and also against the Almighty. St. Stephen was therefore summoned to appear before the council or Sanhedrim upon the charge of saying that Jesus the crucified and rejected Nazarene, should destroy Jerusalem and change all the rites which had been celebrated by the command of Moses.
We hear that as the holy deacon stood before the assembly, his face shone as that of an angel, bright with the love of God, and the thought of the dear Master, Who also had been evil spoken of and dragged before an earthly tribunal. He made a long address to the council with such power and courage, that they were "cut to the heart at his words," yet gnashed with their teeth in their passionate anger against the Saint, who, looking upwards, cried: "Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God." We read that at these words the infuriated people stopped their ears, and with one accord fell upon their victim, casting him violently outside the gates of the city that he might be stoned to death.
Heavily upon the martyr's head fell the stones, terribly they cut and bruised him; but he called upon his Master for help, saying: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" But Jesus had done more than suffer—He had prayed for His murderers; and Stephen, who was treading the hard, rough, bloodstained way of the Cross, must also pray for those who were taking his life. "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge," he cried, and thus speaking, he "fell asleep," the sweet sleep of a holy death, a martyr's death, which should know such a blissful awakening.
Oh, happy Saint, so soon to follow his crucified Lord! May we learn from him to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors, and thus grasp the lesson of his holy life.
Source: Lives of the Saints, Vol. IV, 1878
Collect from the Mass of St. Stephen
Grant, O Lord, we beseech Thee, that we may imitate him whose memory we celebrate, so as to learn to love even our enemies; because we now solemnize his martyrdom, who knew how to pray even for his persecutors to our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.
Source: The Liturgical Year, 1867
A coloring picture for the children can be found below: